Romelu Lukaku: Belgium's enigmatic record scorer still striving to prove he is elite

There is a particular goal Romelu Lukaku is fond of scoring.

It involves the ball being played out to him when he has space into which he can run. The Belgium striker can be blisteringly quick over a 10-yard sprint, though what makes the “Lukaku goal” noteworthy is how often he slows his feet down before firing off his shot.

It’s a goalscoring technique that affords the 31-year-old extra grace if he makes an error. If his first touch is wayward, he has enough pace to catch up to the ball and fix things with his second or third. If a defender makes to catch up with him, at 6ft 3in (190cm), he is tall and strong enough to shrug them off.

A good Lukaku goal starts with him running like a wrecking ball and swatting away defenders with the sort of nonchalance one shoos a fruit fly away from a drink.

While he always attempts to finish with a precise shot from either foot, there is a crudeness to his play that can be captivating at times and frustrating at others.

Over the course of his 15-year professional career, time spent at seven clubs across three countries, Lukaku has amassed over 300 senior goals at one almost every two games. He has also become one of the most effective goalscorers at international level. His tally of 85 — a Belgian record — from 115 caps gave him the best goals-per-appearance ratio out of all players headed into Euro 2024.

He has scored with left foot, right foot, headers. There have been goals from inside and outside the box, tap-ins and plenty of shots from a 45-degree angle after he’s made a run from the half spaces.

Even if one removes his record in friendlies — 25 goals in 44 games — the numbers suggest Lukaku remains one of the most formidable strikers on the continent. Since making his competitive debut for Belgium in September 2010 under Dick Advocaat, he has been worth around a goal per 90 minutes of competitive matches.

And then comes Euro 2024.

Lukaku has tried to score a goal — any goal — multiple times at the tournament in Germany but with no success. Three times he has been denied by a VAR review. Against Slovakia in Belgium’s opening group game, he was offside in the six-yard box when tapping in Amadou Onana’s effort. A late equaliser was chalked off through no fault of his own after Lois Openda was penalised for a handball in the build-up.

In the team’s second group game against Romania, he celebrated scoring a goal in his favoured style only for it to be ruled off for the tightest of offside calls. In the aftermath of the 2-0 victory, German television pointed out Lukaku would be the tournament’s top scorer if VAR had not intervened.

Ifs, buts and maybes have come to define the striker’s finals as his nation prepare to finish their Group E campaign against Ukraine on Wednesday.

Lukaku was denied by a VAR decision against Romania (Image Photo Agency/Getty Images)

Lukaku is supposed to be one of the best strikers in the world. Supposed to be.

One often has to employ footnotes and tone indicators to articulate the strangeness that defines his play and status in world football. He is good at something some of the biggest football clubs want and yet, when they acquire him, they can be confused about how best to use him.

At the time of his 2021 move to Chelsea, the £97.5million ($123.6m) deal was the seventh-most expensive ever. Even now, it sits 10th. It made him the most expensive player of all time in cumulative transfer fees at the time.

Three years later, the London club want to sell him for £38million. But a weekly wage north of £300,000 per week means a limited number of clubs can afford him. Those interested might not see value in a player closer to the end of his career than to his prime, and who has foibles that leave him slightly adrift of the top level.

At this European Championship, he resembles someone at a game of musical chairs, looking for one of the last available seats before the music stops.

“It’s going to be tough for Lukaku,” the former Arsenal and England striker Ian Wright told The Athletic after the Slovakia game. “As much as he scored two disallowed goals, there were other chances he should have done better with. He is a player who is often better when he takes those early chances. But at this level, where he is now and what we know about him…

“There have been moments, when he’s played in England and at the last World Cup, where he can miss a few chances in a row. Chances he shouldn’t be missing.”

Romelu looks to discomfort Slovakia (Vincent Kalut / Photo News via Getty Images)

Lukaku’s qualities are a regular source of debate.

He sits 21st in the Premier League all-time top goal scorer list with 121 goals, rattled up at a quartet of clubs. Yet, of the four, he is probably most fondly remembered by West Bromwich Albion, where he spent a season on loan in 2012-13.

He was voted Serie A’s Most Valuable Player in the 2020-21 season and regarded as a hero at Inter Milan for stopping Juventus’ nine-season run as champions. Yet his reputation suffered at San Siro when he was open to a move to Juve in 2023 following the completion of another season-long deal at Inter.

Yet, for all the intrigue off the pitch, his eccentricities on it have affected his standing. When one-on-one against a goalkeeper, his goal record on paper suggests he should be inevitable, but so many of his attempts come tinged with uncertainty. At Euro 2024 he has puttered through a handful of attacking phases.

“I saw him get one the other day against Slovakia where the ball bounced up after a cross (from Yannick Carrasco),” said Wright. “The ball was too high and he was waiting — all while the defender was getting closer and closer — to try and get the ball down. He was in and around the penalty spot with the goalie rushing out and the defender coming behind.

“The ball was stuck under his feet. He had a very heavy touch with his right foot, that took the ball out further away.

“When a ball like that is coming, you’ve got to weigh up the fact it will come up high in the air after the first bounce. Rather than wait for it to come back down to play it with your feet, it is better to use your chest and take it from there. Those are the things that should be second nature to a striker of that experience.

“After a while, you get a sense for when you have time for a ball to come down for you to slot it and when you don’t.”

Lukaku apologies to the Belgian supporters after his profligate display in Frankfurt (Eric Verhoeven/Soccrates/Getty Images)

If Lukaku is having goalscoring difficulties on the pitch, he retains the faith of fans in his homeland.

Following Belgium’s win over Romania, former Belgian striker Marc Degryse bemoaned the offside call that denied Lukaku a goal and spoke in favour of Arsene Wenger’s proposed change to the law, whereby there would have to be daylight between an attacker and a defender for an offside to be flagged.

The post-match television programme ‘Deviltime’ described the striker’s travails as bad luck rather than a player enduring a crisis of confidence. Former Anderlecht and Ajax striker Jan Mulder viewed it as a case of when rather than if Lukaku will get his goal at the tournament. Belgium Under-19 manager Wesley Sonck also sung words of encouragement for the centre-forward on late-night television. The English translation of his lyrics probably does them no justice…

It happened last Monday
Lots of people to please
It wasn’t good at all
Not even from Romelu

But if we believe in him
His talent comes to the fore
He doesn’t like to show off
He scores goals anyway

It’s innate
To score everywhere
He always hits the spot
He does it so often

Still he received criticism
His foot never budged
Where should the ball go?
Towards Lukaku Romelu

Referee Halil Meler disallows Lukaku’s equaliser against Slovakia (Eric Verhoeven/Soccrates/Getty Images)

Lukaku has entered a period in his career where those in Belgium — and those in Italy, albeit to a lesser degree — have accepted his gifts for what they are, rather than becoming preoccupied with his rougher edges.

There are a handful of inconsistencies that have remained, flaws that prevent him ascending to a new goalscoring level. The qualify of his first touch remains mixed, oscillating between moments of high grace and frustrating miscontrol. His finishing can be erratic with a tendency to shoot off target or directly at the goalkeeper from presentable opportunities. His movement both inside and around the box can be stiff at times.

While there is an understanding he is better off running the channels than working as a classic target man, critics see him as overly reliant on his physical gifts, rather than allying them with what should be a veteran’s technique.

Lukaku at his very best scores goals but can look clumsy. On his poorer days, he misses the target because he lacks the guile seen in some of the best in the world. Still, he retains the confidence of his team-mates. “We create opportunities and Lukaku is always in the right place,” said Kevin De Bruyne after the win over Romania. “I don’t see a frustrated Romelu.”

Belgium manager Domenico Tedesco has tweaked how the team are using the forward compared to previous tournaments under Roberto Martinez.

Where Lukaku was half-fit at the 2022 World Cup and asked to stay central, a tactic with disappointing and infamous results, at Euro 2024 he is still primarily touching the ball either inside the penalty area or in the space just in front of it, but is operating more in the right channel, where he can cut inside and shoot with his left foot.

The do-a-bit-of-everything version of Lukaku has given way to a more focused forward — in theory, at least. All that’s left is for him to score the goals that can propel his nation into the latter stages.

Before the tournament, most Belgian media were predicting a quarter-final exit for Tedesco’s side. For them to progress further, Lukaku would likely have to do something he has often struggled to do: score the crucial goal in a major game. If he succeeds he might go to another level in the discussions of great strikers.

Lukaku has often talked about his desire to earn the respect of his peers.

In a 2018 essay for The Players’ Tribune, he described a difficult childhood growing up in poverty where his parents would struggle to pay the bills and parents at youth games often questioned his age and place of origin.

“I wanted to be the best footballer in Belgian history. That was my goal. Not good. Not great. The best,” he wrote. “I played with so much anger because of a lot of things … because of the rats running around in our apartment … because I couldn’t watch the Champions League … because of how the other parents used to look at me.”

The Amazon documentary series One for All — centred around the Belgium team before and after the 2022 World Cup — showed there was no dulling of the fire. Lukaku’s record puts him in the conversation when it comes to identifying the greatest Belgian footballer. He has gone from pretending to have watched Champions League games to fit in on the school playground to making 44 appearances in the competition.

Yet his career will be defined by missed opportunities as much as its many victories.

Lukaku has runners-up medals in Europe’s top two club competitions having played a central role in both finals. In August 2020, he scored a goal and an own goal for Inter against Sevilla in a 3-2 defeat in the Europa League. Two years later, he came off the bench and had a close-range header saved by Ederson in the 89th minute of the Champions League final.

The opportunity is often described as a moment of brilliance from the Manchester City goalkeeper. Sterner critics queried Lukaku’s decision merely to guide his header on target, rather than aim for the corners and maximise his goalscoring chances.

Ederson repels Lukaku’s header (Marvin Ibo Guengoer – GES Sportfoto/Getty Images)

The Belgian has carried an unfortunate reputation of being a small team killer or stat padder, rather than someone who can be relied upon in the biggest matches when tension mounts and the scrutiny is at its height.

His self-belief has caused moments of friction with those around him.

That publicly stated desire to become the best in the world has irked some of those who have coached him. One Premier League coach, speaking to The Athletic under condition of anonymity to protect relationships, points to his good rather than great finishing. He was adored at Inter Milan, but his behind-the-scenes courting of Juventus soured the relationship beyond repair. Inter subsequently replaced him with Marcus Thuram for the 2023-24 season, won another Scudetto and look set to begin a dynastic era.

Lukaku’s timing in crucial moments has let him down, both on and off the pitch.

Yet Euro 2024 offers him a chance to correct and secure his legacy. Lukaku has shown incredible willpower and effort to learn many aspects that make a striker great, but can encounter issues when attempting the things that make a goalscorer great. A goal at a key moment might change the way the football world views him, starting with the game against Ukraine in Stuttgart.

Lukaku is good and manufacturing his chances. This time, he has to take them.

(Top photo: Ryan Pierse – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

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